Thoughts on Brahmacharya - What is "right use of sexual energy"?

Part 1: What is it?

Brahmacharya is the fourth yama, or ethical observation of a yogic practice. Commonly translated as celibacy or chastity, brahmacharya is derived from the root words Brahman (Brahman is the ultimate divine deity in Hinduism. Brahman encompasses everything and is everywhere) and acharya (priest, teacher, spiritual student.) Traditionally Hinduism recognizes Brahmins as a varna, or caste, whose male members served as priests in temples, ceremonies and rites of passage.

As with many religions and spiritual paths, to be an aspirant requires devotion and focus. Therefore, along with celibacy or chastity, brahmacharya can also be translated as “right use of energy” and is an encouragement to observe and restrain the ways we very often become distracted, unfocused and even pulled off a spiritual path entirely with cravings for external desires… sex, being a significant desire for most of us.

In today’s context, brahmacharya should be considered with a significant amount of attention to context and history. While most of us can agree that sexual cravings, flings and fantasies can definitely derail focus, it’s also important to be critical of the ways that sexual desires and instincts (for women and men) have been oppressed and manipulated by religious fundamentalism and patriarchy for thousands of years. Instilling shame and fear as well as overt sexual violence have all been used as means of control, manipulation, coercion and war. If these issues are not taken into consideration when discussing brahmacharya we risk alienating our students/community and reinforcing systems of oppression and violence.

The yamas are meant to be practiced in unison, as a way of life. Each observance always has to reflect upon the previous observances, in this case: not-stealing, not-lying, and non harming.

Brahmacharya in relation to the previous yamas leads to a consideration of sexual energy that:

  • doesn’t take what isn’t given freely (mutual and enthusiastic consent!)

  • is engaged with honestly (full transparency of STI status and honest, clear communication about expectations, other relationships, and hopefully, desires.

  • does not involve coercion, manipulation or violence of any kind.

Considering the world we live in and the fact that in the USA there is an act of sexual assault every 98 seconds (every 8 minutes a child is assaulted,) this precept asks us to consider our sexual energy as a force that can devastate (or be devastated) as much as it can be a source of pleasure or simple distraction.

Part 2: Self-reflecting and discussion on brahmacharya

As with all the yamas and niyamas there is no formula for right practice. Particularly in regards to brahmacharya we should understand that sexual preference and desires vary widely. Some people might find that engaging sexual energy boosts their ability to focus and show up for their lives while others will find that sexual energy feels depleting or fragmenting. Ultimately the goal of any of these reflections is not to become something you’re not, rather, the goal is to know yourself better and gain tools to care for yourself and the people you love more effectively.

As we research this area let’s keep in mind that sex and sexuality are still topics that many people are highly uncomfortable talking about in public and that carry a considerable amount of vulnerability. Furthermore, for the most part we have not been educated in sexual/sensual literacy so questions and prompts such as the ones below might require ample time for reflection.

Finally, since there has been such a long history of sexual violence and abuse in our world, we should assume that most people are carrying at least a minimal amount of sexual trauma. Some basic considerations for working with trauma and brahmarcharya are:

  • This topic of conversation and personal inquiry are entirely optional! It’s always up to you how much of this reflection you want to do. You can start and stop as many times as you like, as often as you need. If you start to feel anxious, fearful, spaced-out or dissociative you might want to pause for at least a few minutes to practice basic mindfulness or any other tools you have for grounding.

  • Prioritize self-acceptance and forgiveness. If you notice that shame or self-negating are present, pause what you’re doing and take a few moments to sit and breathe with basic mindfulness. Shame and self-negation are entwined with many of our sexual identities whether or not we have ever directly been victims of assault. We live in a rape culture, and are constantly bombarded with violent sexual imagery, misogyny, homophobia and transphobia.  The more you can practice acceptance and forgiveness towards yourself, the more you will have access to a healthy sense of your own sexual needs.

  • Reach out for support. If this exercise brings up trauma or discomfort that you would rather not be alone with then ask a trusted friend to do the exercises with you. You can each do them on your own, or you can ask for witness as you do them by yourself. Alternately, you might choose to do the worksheet with a therapist or counselor.

Thoughts on Asteya and Tapas

Hello friend,

Yes, it’s been a long time. Longer than I said it would take. Longer than I thought it would take. Many of you have been so immersed in your lives that you haven’t even noticed, or perhaps it was just a fleeting thought. Some of you have been waiting, attentive and hurt by the lapse and lack of communication. Some of you have been glad to take space and will be just as glad to get going again.

I apologize for the lack of communication. I’ve been overwhelmed by my life and felt ashamed by my own procrastination and schedule overload. It was easier to not be in contact than to admit I didn’t know when I would get back to it.

After my last correspondence I got hit with a workload I didn’t expect. I’m finishing my 3rd (and final) year of graduate school. I had thought spring term would be spacious and allow me time to devote to this project. Instead it turned into what was probably the most demanding term I had through the course of my studies. Along with school there is the reality of being self-employed. And simultaneous to workload there has been a slowly building fatigue that has manifested as some kind of depression, avoidance and loss of focus.

During this time though you have been in my thoughts every day. I have continued to make lists in my head, jot notes down, collect resources, record meditations. Preparing this syllabus on non-stealing and discipline has needed these last months in order for me to know what I wanted to talk about. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now.

To approach this exploration of non-stealing, and in looking at tapas, or discipline as an idea, I’d like to begin by sharing a bit more about myself and the process I’ve been in. I’ll begin that sharing by saying that this kind of transparency is something that I am extremely uncomfortable with. I’m pushing against deeply ingrained ideas I’ve had about boundaries between teacher/facilitator and student/participant. I’ve been told by many of my mentors that not only is it inappropriate to share one’s personal life with students, but that it’s a sign of immaturity and places undue burden on them.

There are these reasons and then there is the other reason that is harder to admit. Teaching and leading structures are power structures inherently. When someone initiates a process, provides the content for its continuation or takes space and attention from others in order to share their thoughts and views, there is a natural hierarchy that occurs. If a teacher is transparent, human and flawed then she risks her audience. If you knew that the last few months I was struggling to cope with the very things I’m trying now to write and teach about then why would you listen to me or support me?

In this newsletter I’m providing various resources including an essay on Asteya (non-stealing) that describes this as a practice of resisting over-commitment and moderating one’s own ambition. What I’m personally dealing with right now though is accumulation of my own overcommitment, and recognition of how my ambition and need to feel important has led me to create structures in my life that leave no time for actual relating.

As a teacher and facilitator I’ve had over ten years of practice in creating spaces for others’ self-reflection where I reveal very little about myself. I’ve become most comfortable in an opaque place where I speak vaguely of my own experience as teaching moments… “I had this experience once and it taught me such and such.” Even while I’ve urged transparency and vulnerability for others, I have not truly been able to enter that space myself with any of my students as witnesses.

This is a huge question for me. I know that boundaries are healthy. I know that as a student when I’ve felt the need to take care of my teachers in their raw-real-ness I’ve had mixed feelings that sometimes result in more guardedness on my part. But at the same time I feel that it’s necessary to question power structures and the hierarchy of relationships. And I’m beginning to feel that situations which place expectations of anything other than total humanness upon anyone are extremely problematic.

Two weeks ago my friend Michael Stone died. Michael was an excellent teacher. He was a prolific author and a profoundly gifted orator. He skillfully bridged Eastern esoteric wisdom and Western psychology in ways that allowed so many of us space to question tradition and open up to new ideas. Michael was also incredibly opaque. He taught extensively on mental health, yet kept his personal battle with bipolar disorder private. His work on addiction and recovery was brilliant, and he died of an overdose.

In some ways Michael exemplified the shadow of Western culture’s appropriation of Eastern traditions. He built a strong sangha but didn’t humble himself to be just another one of the many. He became a celebrity. He became someone who couldn’t be transparent without risking the persona we all projected onto him.

In the wake of his passing I have felt many things – grief, joy and overwhelming gratitude. One of the things I have felt most strongly is anger at a system that continues to separate into categories of worthy and unworthy. Why here, in a community that says it is awakening, are we still buying into a guru mentality and celebrity ideal? Why does the sangha not elevate each other as teachers? Why was it one man teaching to rooms full of mostly women? Why did the leader not share power more easily or present his humanity more humbly? The fact that he was locked into silence and shame for his own frailty, and couldn’t or wouldn’t allow himself to be seen honestly was because all of us agreed that he should take that place.

We steal from ourselves and from one another with our own expectations. We steal from ourselves with the promises we make to be great, better and good. We steal from each other by not sharing leadership, by not accepting help, by not admitting that it’s fucking hard and terrible sometimes to try and be all the things we set ourselves up to be.

When I started this project I had a huge idea. It was classic me: big ideas, tons of enthusiasm and lots of details and organization that existed as a hypothetical goal. I was clear in my description that this course was experimental, but I didn’t understand how to promote it as a total unknown. I was coming from a place of wanting to make a promise rather than have a process. I judged my own learning as not valuable unless it was a product, and so you all became consumers of what I said I would supply.

What I’ve learned in the last few months is that I set myself up for failure by promising the future without knowing what it would be. The work that I’ve put into this experimental course is far beyond anything I predicted. My learning curve with writing and the discipline it’s taken to produce so much of it has been huge. The first few months were consumed with troubleshooting tech, building new websites and trying to figure out how to get anyone to participate online. The hours I spend researching, writing, editing, organizing and creating other content are totally worthwhile, but they are also never-ending and completely life-absorbing.

Instead of putting this forward as a learning group, I wish I had been more explicit that it was an art project. Instead of asking for donations as payment for a product I wish I had understood that what I was asking for was crowd-sourced patronage. Because this project is a creative one – it has all kinds of twists, turns and spirals. I’m trying new things and trying to learn. And creativity has its own time, and sometimes what that looks like is walking away for a while.

I’ve learned that I steal from myself by overpromising. The feeling that I have something to give is so good. I love the sensation of possibility and excitement of potential. I take on commitments and projects because I really want to do them, and I really want to do a good job so that I can think I’m worthy of________. But in the committing to a future accomplishment I don’t give myself space to actually be in the muck of unknown territory. I steal from my future peace by gobbling up the high of striving and ambition. I set myself up to feel stressed, tired and confused.

That said, I know that an important part of the creative process is disillusionment and rejection. The moment when you throw the thing down and never want to look at it again is a necessary step – it gives space for critique and self-examination. If everything was easy and flowed all the time nothing would be tested or thought out. The frustration and resistance that arises when everything in you wants to walk away from what you’ve begun is the very thing that will strengthen it when you return.

I had to throw this down for a while. I had to feel lost. I had to question what to do next or if there would be anything at all. I had to feel like a failure and a fraud.

And now I have to return and admit the reasons for leaving. I have to return because I couldn’t rest if I didn’t. I have to return because the whole point of this project for me was to feel the challenges of relating, to own them, admit them and move through them.

Tapas is the third niyama. It translates as heat. Tapas is the fire that burns inside of your discomfort. It is the heat you produce in your body when you hold a challenging yoga asana – steadying your breath and nervous system as your muscles ache and your mind protests. It is the heat you build in your heart when you remain with the charge and activation of conflict without allowing yourself to polarize or make anyone wrong. It is the tenacity it takes to show up again and again for whatever course you’ve set for yourself. It is the shit of learning to love more – the very real, scary shit and awful tension that has to get worked through in order to love yourself enough to even perceive anything other than your own insecurity.

Practicing any of the yamas (or pretty much anything at all) creates heat. Having a practice means having a commitment, and commitments are challenging. Commitments to anyone or anything often bring us to our edge and sometimes to our breaking points. We might have all kinds of ideas about what it will be, but usually we quickly find out that what it will be is of its own determining. We find out that our presumptions of ease and harmony forgot to take everything else into account. We find out that we are vastly under equipped. We find out that the process is complex, sometimes torturous, often irritating and possibly highly overrated.

I’m not someone who will argue for commitment being a binding contract. Obviously, I’m trying to work out how to forgive myself for not completely holding up a commitment in the ways I thought I could. Commitments are (like everything else) a study in relativity. Does the commitment take more than it gives? Maybe the tapas then is to confront my own fears of failure and figure out how to leave. Does the commitment keep me pushing towards new growth? Well then perhaps the work is to stay in the fire and let myself grow.

For me right now, commitment is an evolution. It’s deciding to stay with something even if I don’t know what it I’m staying with or what to do about it. It’s giving up my self-concept in order to discover a new aspect of my being. At it’s best, I think that commitment is a spiritual practice. Can I be here in this discomfort and trust that the path will appear before me? Can I be here in this emptiness and trust that I have anything to give?

Thank you all for your initial support, patience and for continuing this with me. I have to admit that I honestly don’t even know who is engaged or not. I know that many of you fell off within the first few weeks, overwhelmed with emails, and perhaps you might not even see these words. For those of you who will I ask you to please give me some support. I need to know how this is working for you. I have my own reasons for continuing, but they won’t be enough if they don’t include you. It’s important to me that what I’m doing is useful in the world. Please help me continue to give what I can by honestly giving your own feedback here.

Below (and above) you will see my reflections on Asteya and Tapas. In the newsletter that was sent you’ll find links to supporting content. I hope they spark your interest and provide space for your own theorizing and creative practice. I will continue with this project until it is complete. I have to for my own wellbeing, and I also want to. I missed it while I was away. I truly, deeply believe that these practices are some of the most supportive and rational ideas I can find in the world right now, and that is reason enough to continue and to share.

In peace and with immense gratitude,
Renee


Thoughts on Asteya - Nonstealing: Part 1, Some questions to consider

One definition of asteya is “not taking what isn’t given freely.”  

How many people or beings have had a part in giving to you what you take for granted… your breakfast today, your computer, your clothing, your home? Were any of these things given, and if so who was the original giver?

What was given and what was taken? Was any of what was given, given freely?

What does it mean to give freely?

What is the difference between giving and selling? Between receiving and buying?

When was the last time you freely gave?

When was the last time you freely received?

Giving takes generosity. Generosity takes trust. Trust is the ability to receive what is given.

Do you trust your own intent when you give?

Do you feel worthy and trusting of what you receive?

Ethical practices have to go beyond humans. The Earth is a living being.

The earth is an abundant place. Perhaps if we lived with better listening skills we would find that we have everything we need. If what is given from Earth is given freely, then forcing, shoving, struggling, mining, exploding, enslaving and exploiting could be described as misperception or even mental illness. Considering giving and taking interpersonally must also be a consideration of how we give and take from our environments.

What does resource mean to you?

What does it mean to be resourceful?

How do you experience resources being shared?

How would you like to cultivate and share resources?


Thoughts on Asteya - Nonstealing: Part 2, Ponderings

Giving, taking and receiving attention
Attention is an asset. It can be a gift. It can be a debt. It can be withheld. It can be bartered, manipulated and forgotten. It takes energy, focus and intention. Giving attention to something isn’t always a choice. Most of the time we don’t notice what we’re giving attention to. Often, the things we give our attention to end up stealing from what ultimately might feel like more important investments… like cell phone or social media vs your friends and family.

How often do you pay attention to your attention?

There’s also the quality of attention. A Buddhist instruction for meditation says something like, attention should feel like a butterfly resting in your open palm. The butterfly is awareness, and your palm is a symbol of the mind. If you grasp and clutch with your mind’s attention you will crush your awareness – stifle it, kill it. If you’re lazy with your mind’s attention, awareness will fall or float away. So there needs to be a balance of intention and relaxation. Or, as described in the yoga sutra… there needs to be a balance of abhyasa and vairagya. Abhyasa means consistency, practice, firmness. Vairagya means letting go, detached from outcome. As with most binaries, one can’t be in a state of balance without the other.

Paying attention to anything worth paying attention to needs to be like this. Especially if you’re paying attention to something else that’s alive. The closed fist, tight attention, clutching focus feeling means you don’t get to experience the subtle 3-dimensionality of who you’re paying attention to. This is a feeling of taking something out of context and narrowing in on it. Sometimes this can lead to evolution, innovation or new discoveries, like studying one part of a: compound, element, body, technique, personality, system... and “discovering” how much potential is contained within.

No one likes to be taken out of context though, and innovators would do well to remember that the world is fairly consistent in this regard. When we take one piece but leave the rest, the one piece usually becomes pathological (either in overgrowth or failure to thrive) in its isolation, and the rest is always impacted by its absence.

I believe that the concept of sin arises from this (im)balance of attention. Wrongful action towards others begins by taking them out of context and failing to remember their wholeness and origin. The failure to recognize another’s wholeness allows us to justify and create abuse, mistrust, fear, violence. Our own discomfort with vulnerability dulls the need to be honest and lets the truth of something slip away. What we choose to focus on, or avoid paying attention to will define and justify our actions.

In the second chapter of the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali (Who might have been mythic serpent, a sage, a collection of authors, or a woman) outlines the means to liberation (another word which is sometimes synonymous with yoga.) Basically, if we want to be free of suffering then we have to work through what are called the kleshas. The kleshas are identified as the five causes of suffering, and they become intrinsic to our beingness basically the moment we are born. They are:

  • Avidya (ignorance, improper perception): Ignorance, or improper perception is basically reality as we define it through material forms. We look at a thing, give it a name, define its function and then keep it in that box. This happens with people, places, animals, elements and objects. Because our lifespans are so short; because we’ve become separated from our environments; because we think it will create stability… we like to remove people and things from the contexts that made them. We like to think of people and things as permanent, and we usually become exceedingly distressed (suffering) when we are forced to confront the fact that they are not.

    Ignorance can be an unconscious or willing categorization of something or someone as an object, divorced from the forces that made it or its possible future. Ignorance is shortsighted grasping and a need to control and label what or who is around us in order to feel like we know anything at all.

    Avidya creates deep internal suffering. It is the root of neuroticism and fear. It is the way we forecast loss, deny freedom, oppress others and restrict growth or evolution. It is racism, sexism, ageism, ableism and classism. It is the labeling of something as an object and treating it as if it were not made from everything.

    When we are ignorant to what is around us, we are ignorant to ourselves. If I label you as bad then I must label myself as good. In the label of good I will never find self-acceptance or forgiveness for the mistakes I make. I will never be human and neither will you. If I am good and you are bad, then neither of us get to be complex and imperfect. Ignorance is the root of violence. It is a basic misunderstanding of the holistic and inter-permeating nature of all things.
     

  • Asmita (ego, I-feeling): Ego is necessary for basic survival. It’s part of the paradox of being human. We’re really just part of everything else, but for this moment called life we exist in separate bodies. The I-feeling creates a sense of identity, ownership and entitlement. It is necessary but of course, it is impermanent. It creates suffering when we are ignorant of our connection to one another, when we fail to realize that harm caused to anyone is harm caused to everyone.

    Ego follows ignorance. If I objectify you and reduce you from your complexity, then I can continue to be the start of my own story. You are here for me – and therefore your experience is not your own, rather, you exist to “make me feel” better or worse. You are here to fit into my story and timeline. The I-feeling exists as the central focus. If it isn’t kept in check through persistent self-reflection and willingness to listen to feedback, then it will absorb the world and everything in it. It becomes a locus of neuroticism and insecurity.
     

  • Raga (desire, attachment, lust for what’s pleasurable): If we’re coming from ego and misperception than pleasure is disembodied and objectified. It becomes a focus of craving for things, people, and experiences that exist outside of ourselves. The feelings of wanting and craving produce their own states that can be addictive. In pursuing attainment and satiation we often become mindless in our actions and blind-sighted to anything or anyone else. When we finally attain what we want the pleasure is usually short-lived. Then we start wanting again.

    Raga is the notion that through attaining anything outside of ourselves, or what is freely given, that we will somehow be happier, better or more whole. If we live in a state of craving than we can always project our wholeness and happiness upon future attainment or successes, and will never be content with what we have or who we are at present.
     

  • Dvesha (Aversion, repulsion, rejection of what’s painful): Dvesha works with Raga as its opposite. While Raga chases after pleasure, Dvesha runs away from pain. Dvesha is the inability to accept loss, defeat or mediocrity. It uses whatever tactics needed in order to avoid suffering. Placing blame upon others or events (victimhood,) checking out by reaching for any kind of distraction or addiction when things become uncomfortable, and other avoidance patterns are some of the ways we might try to push away our discomfort.

    Dvesha, as a function of ego and misperception, can also be the tendency to take things personally. We might think that the suffering we experience is somehow unfairly placed upon us, which in turn validates our refusal and avoidance. Dvesha works with Raga when we feel ourselves as victims of circumstance and imagine that we are somehow owed, or will attain something (material objects, recognition, revenge…) that will make us happier.
     

  • Abhinivesha (fear of death): The last cause of suffering is a transition back to the first cause, creating an endless cycle. From one perspective we might see fear of death as a biological function. We instinctively pull away from sharp objects or steep cliffs. Our bodies reflexively do their best to keep us alive. But this instinct can also become ingrained as a trauma response and physiological state of tension. If we have experienced events in our lives that were dangerous or that we perceived as dangerous it’s quite easy to develop habitual reactions towards anything that activates the part of our brains that associate to those events.

    Events that might be perceived as dangerous are not limited to those defined by physical danger. They also include exposure to media or ideology which might deny or invalidate a person’s feelings of worth, belonging or “normalcy,” verbal, emotional and psychological abuse, feelings of rejection, experience or perceived experience of lack of basic needs...etc.

    Abhinivesha also manifests when we hold on to relationships in ways that keep ourselves or others from growing, when we hold onto objects or materials and become terrified of losing what we have, or when we hold on to circumstances in our lives that are, or have become stagnant and oppressive.

    The kind of internal stress and defensiveness that occurs when we have consistent fear for our safety and wellbeing, whether these fears are well-founded or not, creates psychosomatic responses which can result in physical ailments, depression and anxiety, a general state of mistrust towards the world, and an inability to soothe oneself in times of distress.

As with all of the yamas, asteya is a prism that unfolds into every aspect of life. Not stealing could literally mean not breaking into someone’s car or borrowing their things indefinitely, but for most of us the practice will be infinitely more complex and subtle. Non-stealing depends upon the precedent precepts. We have to practice satya: honesty with ourselves about our intentions, desires and entitlement. We have to practice ahimsa: striving to listen deeply in order to discern between consent and obligation, between generosity and bribery, so that we do not perpetuate violence in our exchanges.

All of the yamas are strengthened and enforced by the niyamas. Tapas in particular will be the deciding factor for most of us. When translated as “heat,” tapas is the internal friction created when we keep ourselves accountable. The yoga sutra describes the effect of tapas as “burning away impurities.” The impurities are our own ego-needs and base desires, they are conditioning of past experiences, families and culture, they are misinformation and wrong perception. Ultimately they are the blockages between our minds, hearts and bodies. They are the restrictions we place around our hearts, and the ways we limit loving ourselves and everything else around us.

Ethical inquiry requires recognition of cause and effect, and will necessarily become a commitment of personal integrity, a desire and striving for right relationship. Ethics (like religion) can easily turn into moralism. If we’re not careful we will become sidetracked by dualistic arguments and our own needs to know, and to be right.

Asteya and Tapas are two precepts that keep pointing us towards complexity and open ended questions. Asteya encourages us to reflect again and again upon what has been given and what will be taken. Particularly in regards to an ethical intent, we must ask ourselves repeatedly why we choose to take in and absorb, or refuse and reject, certain narratives, information and ideas.

Tapas keeps us in the questions. It pulls us back and away from making quick and easy judgments. It asks for consideration and reconsideration. It demands time, attention and humility.

According to the yoga sutra, there are eight limbs of a yogic practice. The first two limbs are practice of the yamas and the niyamas. The yamas are the efforts we make to live in right relationship to ourselves, others and our environments. The niyamas are the personal observances we undertake so that we are able to be present, peaceful, clear and effective. We should understand these efforts as the practice of internal alignment.

Internal alignment is the ability we have to listen deeper than all the chatter and insecurities that clutter our minds so that we are not swayed from our own center and self-knowing. It is trust in our choices and intent. It is the willingness we create when we open ourselves to something greater, even if this something is nothing other than the whole of our mutual uplifting.

This essay is written with gratitude and appreciation for the life and teachings of Michael Stone. Michael was the first person to introduce me to this Gatha, or prayer, from the Zen tradition.

 

“Let me respectfully remind you.
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time swiftly passes and opportunity is lost.
Let us awaken, awaken.
Do not squander your life.

May all beings be happy
May all beings be healthy
May all beings be safe and free from danger
May all beings be free from their ancient and twisted patterns
May all beings be free from every form of suffering.”



 

Thoughts on contentment - Santosha

Read my essay 'Contentment in The Age of Anxiety' here.
As always, I welcome your comments and suggestions for my writing. To access the collaborative essay where you can post comments and feedback click here.

Contentment
Contentment, or Santosha, is the second niyama. The niyamas in general are practices of personal observance. All of these observances are simply habits that we decide to continuously reinforce. Since anxiety is produced primarily by distress and discontent, when we make the choice to practice contentment we are also making the choice to self-soothe. Contentment is direct resistance to greed, envy, competition, and negativity. When we are content in our lives we are less likely to make brash or unskillful choices, create unnecessary waste, or treat our relationships as if they were disposable.

Contentment should not be confused with complacency. While it is important to consistently find appreciation and calm, it is equally important to work against oppression. When we practice contentment we must refer to the previous precepts we have worked with. Contentment must also be practiced with cleanliness (saucha.) If we are ignoring the negative effects of our actions, or consuming without mindfulness we create waste, stagnancy, and residue. We must practice satya, or truth, and refuse to lie to ourselves about the efficacy or impact of our own choices. Finally, we must always return to ahimsa, nonviolence. When we practice contentment it is equally important that we see how both our discontent as well as our complacency can create violence and suffering.

The most simple way to think about practicing contentment is to consider that it is the essence of wellbeing. Even in dire situations there are still things to appreciate. By practicing contentment we build resiliency, health, and balance in ourselves and others. Below you will find the beginning of a list for strategies on how to be content. Please comment on this page to add your own!

How to be content

  1. Spend time outside every day.
  2. Do something that gets your moving and your heartrate up for 15-30 minutes every day
  3. Regularly try to relax your brain: relax your eyes, forehead, and face.
  4. Breathe deeply and try to experience the sensation of your breath.
  5. Pay attention to your body: its sensations, instincts, and the ways you respond viscerally and kinesthetically to your surroundings.
  6. Practice appreciating normal things like textures, colors, and shapes.
  7. Practice appreciating other people for the ways they naturally are.
  8. Practice appreciating yourself when you appreciate others and the things around you.
  9. Try to notice when you are over-thinking or getting caught up in your thoughts
  10. When you notice that thinking is dominant, pay attention to your breath.
  11. Appreciate when something is good, or even just ok, as it’s happening.
  12. Notice what is lovely and good. Point it out to yourself and anyone around you.
  13. Make eye contact with people and smile at them
  14. Say Grace, or take a moment to feel grateful before you eat.
  15. Say thank you often, and mean it.
  16. When you experience craving or longing notice if it pushes you out of your own center.
    1. If it does, then practice centering yourself by turning your attention towards breath, sensation, and appreciation.
    2. If it doesn’t then enjoy the feeling of longing or craving, because those feelings are an important part of being mystical, romantic, magical beings.
  17. When you are judging something, notice how it makes you feel. Decide if you want to continue feeling that way. Play around with making different choices.
  18. When you notice yourself being judgmental, choose to find something to appreciate also.
  19. Don’t be fooled by appearances that make you assume something is better than what you have. Remember that life is probably just as complex over there as it is here.
  20. Remember that everything and everyone is changing, including you.
  21. Remember that nothing is permanent.
  22. Restrict your time on social media and the Internet
  23. Call people and get together instead of only texting
  24. Refuse to be impressed by busyness – your own and anyone else’s
  25. Write simple lists of what you can do easily in one day, refuse to add more to the list than that.
  26. Learn to prioritize
  27. Ask for help
  28. Practice caring less if non-essential tasks aren’t done
  29. Wait at least 24 hours before buying non-essential items. If the item in question is over $50, then wait a whole week.
  30. Affirm sensations of anxiety: overwhelm, depression, loneliness, purposelessness etc. by contextualizing the sensation in relationship to dominant culture. Try not to pathologize yourself or enforcing the perception that feelings of distress are wrong.
  31. Find or form communities that share resources
  32. Share what you have
  33. Ask for what you need
  34. Smile at people you don’t know
  35. Offer to help others
  36. Make a point to meet people (online or in person) who are significantly different than you, find ways to be friendly and connect with them
  37. When you get stressed from the news look around you and notice all the normal, non-exciting things that are happening
  38. Join a support group
  39. Study the geological epochs of the earth - remember how vast time and space are
  40. Ask others to tell you what they appreciate about you
  41. Clean out your house and get rid of everything you don’t actually need, and then don’t replace any of it
 This beautiful collage made by  Janna Dorothy

This beautiful collage made by Janna Dorothy

Thoughts on Truthfulness - Satya, Pt. 1

This is the first draft for a chapter on Satya (nonlying.) If you'd like to suggest edits or comments please visit the working document here.

Childhood is weird. No matter what the circumstances are, being a kid means that you have no direct control over your life. It means that you are small and always below the adults who tower above you and make choices that shape your perception of normal. And you’re porous. As a kid you absorb your immediate environments without the ability to filter through them with logic or comparison. When you’re a kid you take things personally... because you’re a person... and you feel things, so they’re real... and not taking things so personally is a trick that adults do. Or at least say they do.

In childhood, honest perceptions become the darnedest things. Kids point out the things that adults pretend they don’t see. Kids ask questions about taboos. They listen to actions. When actions don’t line up with words kids won’t pretend to understand, they’ll show you where you’ve tricked yourself into believing your own stories and ignoring your own behavior. Kids are honest about the basics: pleasure and pain. When they’re younger we see it in their bodies and their instincts, there’s no pretending or masking, they want what they want. As they grow and learn to talk and gesture they also learn to lie and manipulate. So in early childhood we teach them about ethics… These are the things that are important: be as kind to others as you want others to be to you; don’t take what’s not yours; ask nicely; don’t lie.

In regards to her somatics and therapeutics work, I’ve often heard Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen say that she prefers working with infants and young kids because they’re honest. Dealing with older people can be frustrating and arduous. To get to the actual instincts and responses means that layers of facade and learned behaviors have to get sorted through first. Infants and kids on the other hand, are still immediate, still present, still trusting enough to be real.

It’s usually around six or seven years old, coinciding with the beginning of elementary education, that honesty starts to unfold as the complex beast that it is. Maybe it’s the social pressure of school, maybe it’s the cognitive and biological development of the age, maybe it’s the first Saturn square of the astrological cycle… but it’s somewhere around then that honesty becomes less about personal, immediate desire, and more about comparison with peers. At this age the world starts to open up. School introduces other people who come from different kinds of families with different social and economic realities and priorities. There are more adults presenting more possibilities of what grown-ups can be. Stories pass through whispers about what so-and-so did and introduce ideas that were inconceivable before. It seems to be around this age that honesty becomes more malleable – that people realize they can still technically tell the truth, without being truthful at all.

Lying is an art. To tell a good lie there has to be some part of you that believes what you’re saying. There has to be a part of you that even if you know it’s not true, thinks that it should be true. Lying depends on conviction, it depends on the feeling you have when you say something. Telling a falsehood is one way to lie. Delivering information to someone else that you know is not true. Creating an impression in another person that reality is different than what you know it to be.

Another way to lie is by concealing information. This form of lying isn’t about giving untruthful information per se, but rather it’s about not giving information at all. Or just giving some of the truth, but not all of it. It might be a technique of focusing on other elements or using distraction. It might be feigned ignorance. Concealing truth also depends on belief that whatever is being concealed should be – that for whatever reason that information is better off hidden.

Lying doesn’t always depend on words. In fact, lying often seems to manifest as energy and intention. The person who’s lying may know it or not –but if you’ve been lied to in this way (or been the person who lies) you know how words can sound like one thing, but vibes feel very different. You know that subtle, nagging un-comfort when something just doesn’t sit right. If you’ve lied in this way you know the vigilance and psychic sensitivity it takes. You know how it is to watch cues and monitor attention. You know how it is to adjust yourself in order to avoid revealing the truth.

Whatever kind of lie you’re telling, what makes a lie is the knowledge that what you’re putting out isn’t (fully) true. And because truth is a huge, subjective, multi-faceted experience that shifts depending on who you ask, this might be the only distinguishing factor of a lie.

The second of the five yamas, Satya, can be translated as non-lying, or truthfulness. But in thinking about these two definitions it seems that they are different things. I think about not lying as a task. It is a rudimentary and basic principle. It’s a recognition on some level that matter is formed from sound, and that when you verbalize something it becomes real. So you shouldn’t use your words in such a way that they create structures of experience (for yourself as well as others) which have no foundation in reality. Not lying, for me, is based in words. It includes not telling half-truths, and not obscuring information through a lack of words. Not lying means to consciously use your words responsibly.

Truthfulness on the other hand, is something entirely different. Being truthful includes not lying, but it also includes awareness of inner experience that is often far below the level of words. Where not lying is a task – a thing you can choose to do – truthfulness is a practice, something that never ends. Truthfulness requires adherence to the first virtue of nonviolence. Along with not telling lies it also means listening deeply, because sometimes there are many truths, and so we have to choose which ones we express. Truthfulness is awareness of feeling and motivation. It is the willingness to accept and own-up to our own instincts and desires to lie.

One of the many ways that children are teachers is that they reflect back to us grown-ups the things we try to avoid in ourselves: selfishness, greed, the desire to be rewarded, and the fear of punishment. As we grow, hopefully we become more responsible with our words, but also hopefully we become more attuned to our motivations. For me, the difference between truthfulness and not-lying is intention. You can be honest with your words while having contradictory or undermining feeling and intent. The ability to sense this, and to make conscious choices in this place of often slippery perspectives, is the difference.

I started off talking about kids because all of us experience multiple truths daily, and these truths often have ages associated to them. We were all kids once, and learned to behave and respond as products of our environments. We can observe in kids the modification of behavior in order to earn rewards, or avoid shame. We can observe those instincts in ourselves too, though usually they’re buried under a lot of other learned behaviors. So developing the ability to listen to whose voice is talking is developing a practice of truthfulness. Knowing when we’re behaving or speaking in ways that are rooted in insecurity doesn’t mean that we don’t have insecure instincts, it simply means that we are aware enough to make choices about acting on them.

I grew up with a parent who was significantly damaged. I don’t care to pathologize or label, mostly because labels are their own kinds of lies that can never express the complexity or conditions that lead to a person’s behavior. But I can say that I learned from a very young age to lie and manipulate the truth in order to avoid the discomfort of angry outbursts. I learned how to hide feelings that would disappoint. I learned that intimacy and love equate to hostility and guilt. Later in my life when my other parent died I learned to distance myself from my own fear, and to pack it away in unseen places. I learned how to prioritize my own survival and autonomy, because that felt much more like truth than trusting anyone else to stick around.

I spent a lot of years living in a certain version of truth. I’d say that truth was somewhere between six and ten years old. From that version of truth I had enough understanding of basic instincts that I knew how to sneak and undermine in order to get my needs met instead of just crying. I had no confidence however that my needs would be met outright, because my experience as a young person was that life was unstable, and simply asking for something rarely delivered the outcome I wanted. So from this standpoint I could easily justify half-truths and concealment. And it’s not that I was lying in order to hurt anyone else, I was lying to others because I had learned lies about myself. As kids we rarely understand that not getting our needs met isn’t a reflection of whether we’re worthy of having our needs met. We take things personally, because we’re people, and we feel things. So when the sustenance, shelter, affection, patience, or correct boundary isn’t given lovingly, we either normalize it and/or we think it’s our fault, and we take it on as if we are somehow responsible.

In my experience it’s these kinds of lies that are most pervasive. Not the lies we often think of as in someone who’s out to cheat you, or telling lies to get away with something. But the kinds of lies we tell because for some reason we don’t trust another’s reaction, or their ability to respond maturely and appropriately to what we say. A lot of times these lies are care-taking lies or coddling lies. They are lies we tell because we want to protect something, lies we tell for someone else’s “own good.” These are the kinds of lies that seek to control the future and that make assumptions about what other people want. These are the kinds of lies that end up being a prison we live in. These are the kinds of lies we wake up from someday and realize we’ve given the freedom and truthfulness of our lives away.

When contemplating upon the yamas, the instruction is to always come back to ahimsa, nonviolence. This is because the truth has always been a slippery thing, and ultimately it’s up to us as individuals to make our own choices. In Ethics For A New Millennium, The Dalai Lama points out* that given the diversity of cultural understanding and priorities, there is no possible way to determine a universal right or wrong. So what we are left with is the concept of ethics, and ethics is a constant practice, not a single decision. Taken in this way, as a measurement for ethical consideration, nonviolence is the ultimate standard that we can adhere to.

So what is nonviolence as a measurement of truth? Firstly, for me, it’s considering who’s speaking. There are times we may express truth, but the truth is coming from our inner four-year old who’s freaking out about something. There are times when we speak a truth that doesn’t do anyone any good to hear, and our motivations for speaking it are not caring or compassionate. There are other times we may express truth, while insisting that our truth is the only truth, and refusing to listen or acknowledge the truth of another. There are times when we bury our true feelings and speak words that commit our bodies and attention to people, places, or things that we don’t truly want to commit to. All of these truths are violent on some level: they put energy into motion that furthers reactivity and destruction; they hurt feelings and cause resentment; they oppress others; they oppress our own instincts and desires. When we consider who’s speaking (or acting) before we express, we take the time to check in with our intention and to feel which parts of ourselves are trying to take the lead.

Checking in though isn’t always easy, and sometimes it feels downright impossible. When there’s a situation that triggers your inner four-year old, that four-year old is the one who wants to lead the show. Being the grown-up means that first of all you have to identify and admit to your own childishness, secondly you have to be able to pause before you let that kid throw a tantrum, and third you have to find some way to both pacify the kid while also moving forward with an adult decision. None of that is easy.

One thing that I’ve learned trying to deal with my inner children (yes there are many of them) is that there are a few important keys. The first one is acknowledgement. Denying someone’s experience is never a good, or lasting, solution. Just like an actual four-year old, my inner four-year old freaks harder and louder when she feels like nobody’s paying attention. Unlike an actual four-year old who hopefully has parents who can be there, it’s no one’s job to show up for my inner kiddo except for me or my therapist. So when I start to feel reactive I try and catch myself in those first few moments and initiate a dialogue, first to figure out who’s talking, and second to acknowledge their experience.

The second key is to determine what needs can be met, and which ones can be readjusted. Figuring out how to meet a need means that I have to get to the core of the feeling and away from the story of whatever is triggering it. This is tricky and where having a good counselor or friend to talk to can be really helpful. This kind of sleuthing is, for me, the heart of honesty. It’s when we cut through the layers of illusion that keep us bound to unhealthy expectations and start to do the real work of knowing ourselves. Basic mindfulness is the most effective tool here. And basically, it’s really simple… After you’ve acknowledged you’re having a reaction and when you’re paying attention, then you just hang out and feel. A lot of times the basic need is simply acknowledgement and presence. Our four-year olds are freaking out, they don’t know why, neither do we, so we hold them for a while and then they calm down and get on with things. Often just this is enough. But in order to do it first we need to be honest with ourselves that we’re being reactive, and then we need to take the time to honestly listen without trying to fix anything or make anyone grow up.

If you’ve taken the time to acknowledge and listen with compassion, and if that’s not enough to calm down, then chances are there’s a specific and familiar issue that has been aggravated. Usually when the inner child is upset the issue is one that is felt deeply and relates to a belief or fear that we carry in our core. Core beliefs form the essence of how we see ourselves, others, the world, and the future. When a core belief has been triggered its mechanism is to prove that it’s right. This creates compulsive behavioral patterns where we find ourselves pushing into pain in order to validate our own suffering. As someone who has experienced abandonment, one example of a core belief that I’m very familiar with is, I’m not lovable. When I feel vulnerable I often find myself trying to get other people to confirm that I’m not lovable. How I do this depends on who I’m with, but I know it when I’m doing it because the feeling is insistent and no matter how many times or in what ways they might say they love me, it’s never enough for me to believe it.

It becomes easy to tell when a core belief has been triggered by learning what signs to look for. Signs of activation are different for everyone, but you know them when they’re up because they feel soooooo familiar. Signs that tell me I’m starting to react around a core belief are a tightening around my solar plexus and chest that feels restrictive to my breathing, and thoughts that start to jump into the future – usually with variations on the theme of abandonment: how it’s going to hurt, what it’s going to look like, how I’m going to get mad and make the person who’s abandoning me sorry for it… And of course, the conversations I mentioned above, where I push and push until I can get someone to affirm that they don’t love me at all. It can take a long time to learn to catch yourself before, or when you’re getting triggered, and often it’s easier to see the signs in hindsight. The same old arguments, or similar relationship dynamics that present themselves again and again are usually clues.

When you’ve located the familiar feelings or situations the next thing to do is look at what you’re projecting. Core beliefs work to stay alive by convincing you that others believe these things about you. Very rarely are we able to admit that we don’t love ourselves or don’t think we’re valuable. But a lot of the time we can easily project that onto other people and believe that they don’t love us, don’t think we’re valuable, or think we’re somehow wrong and bad. If you notice that you often have the same storyline running through your head about someone else’s thoughts or feelings towards you, chances are good that you’ve actually come across your own core belief. When you’ve found the core belief the next thing you do is treat it just like you would a little kid who’s feeling insecure. You might ask yourself things like, do you really believe that to be true, or inquire as to why that belief is there. And just like with kids, when we show up for ourselves with patience, compassion, and a good sense of humor, the result is going to be a lot better than if we show up with negativity, blame, or anger. Getting pissed at yourself or telling yourself you’re being dumb probably won’t be as effective as pointing out to yourself how you are lovable and good. But in order to do that you have to be honest and tell the truth. And you have to be willing to listen to it.

So this is where I get to the point.

It’s impossible to believe the best about others if you believe the worst about yourself. It’s impossible to trust another’s good intent when you know your own intent to be undermining or resentful. As long as you think someone else might lie to you, you will feel justified in lying to them. To practice honesty goes hand-in-hand with creating relationships and mutual trustworthiness. To practice honesty means that you address your own insecurity and stop manipulating others to make you feel better about yourself. To practice honesty means that you see your goodness, worthiness, and lovability even when you mess up or do something “wrong.” It means that you develop a gauge for behavior and assess yourself accordingly – that you can admit when you made an honest mistake and forgive yourself, and that you can admit when you were acting immaturely and feel the impact of your choices.

When we speak something into the world it becomes permanent. Those sounds can never be removed from the minds of those who have heard. The resonance of our own speech vibrates in our bodies and becomes our flesh. If we know who’s voice is emerging from our mouths then we can trust our own honesty. If we’re uncertain- if there’s doubt, if there’s the inner knowing that the things we’re saying are coming from fear, bias, or a place inside that isn’t yet resolved – then by speaking those words we ourselves become more uncertain and less aligned. To speak truth is to know in your very deepest center that the sounds you’re making have integrity with your heart, and with all your intention for what will be. To speak truth means that you care enough about the future to consider what you’re laying down now that others will build on and put stock in.

*Footnotes
Page 27 “...we must allow that people’s understanding of what is good and right, or what is wrong and bad, or what is morally appropriate and what is not, of what constitutes a positive act and what a negative act must vary according to circumstances and even from person to person. But here let me say that no one should suppose it could ever be possible to devise a set of rules or laws to provide us with the answer to every ethical dilemma, even if we were to accept religion as the basis of morality. Such a formulaic approach would never capture the richness and diversity of human experience.”


Reading and resources:


Practices for Satya

DIAD PRACTICE

Similar to November’s Ahimsa Diad, this is an exercise in vulnerability, transparency, and of course, honesty. To do this exercise it’s best to work with a partner whom you feel comfortable with. You can also do this as a writing exercise where you take both roles.

  • Choose a length of time for each round. I find that anything less than 5 minutes isn’t as effective. Somewhere between 5-10 minutes is usually good. Individual writers will just do one round. Choose who will ask questions first

  • Sit facing your partner and make eye contact, maintain eye contact the whole time. If you’re writing then be in a space and time where you can commit to the duration of the exercise without distraction.

  • Whoever is asking questions begins with, “How do you lie?” and whomever is answering can take as long as they want to answer. Answers may be complex and rambling or short and simple. The questioner simply listens and does not respond verbally, nor through gesture, when the questioner senses the answerer is complete, the questioner says, “Thank you” and then asks again, “How do you lie?” If you’re writing you can take the same format. In regards to the above essay, sometimes I pretend that the questioner is ‘adult Renee’ and the answerers are my inner characters. Either way, give yourself the space and container to answer the question and also acknowledge yourself lovingly for your honest answers.

  • The same questioner and answerer continue for the entire duration of the round. When the time is up you can bow to each other and then switch roles. After both people have gone take some time to discuss and reflect on the experience.


MEDITATION PRACTICE

These are two meditation practices I started in my mid 20’s. I had had a string of relationships with friends, dates, and employers that were all bringing up the same hurtful issues and core fears. I was feeling really low and terrified of repeating more painful relationships. I started a seated meditation practice then pretty much as a last resort, and found that when I tried to meditate my mind would just be filled with fear.

At that point I came across a book I had been given as a teen called The Book of Qualities by Ruth Gendler. The book is filled simple drawings and loving, compassionate descriptions of different emotional characters. Inspired by the way she held space for different characters to have voices I started to approach my meditation practice differently. Instead of trying to tune out or push back the fear, I began to imagine it as a character that I could greet with friendliness and just listen to. I found that this approach almost immediately had a calming effect. It would sometimes take a few minutes of one my inner characters throwing a fit or spewing venom, but if I could maintain equanimity and a friendly observant presence they would eventually calm down and allow me to approach them.

This kind of practice is age-old wisdom that most of us have learned through fairy tales and myths. When the monster and witches stay hidden, terror is rampant. When we see and name them, they lose their power and often become allies. When we approach the parts of ourselves that feel too ugly and awful to admit to we first have to contend with the pain of self-negation and rejection. However, we soon find that at the core of that feeling is tenderness and the desire to be loved and included. In this way, Making Friends with Feelings is not only a practice for healing and resolution within ourselves, it is also training for compassionate relations with others. When we have done the work of facing, accepting and loving our own wretched and ugly characters, we are much less like to be sent into reactivity by someone else’s demons. In fact, when we have done this work for ourselves, we build tools of empathy and acceptance that help us recognize, communicate with, and pacify those characters we meet them in others.

Especially now, at a time when boundaries and borders are shifting, inclusivity has never been more important. “Doing the theories” of inclusion, community, and togetherness means that we definitely will be confronted with aspects of humans and behavior that we find vile and offensive. We don’t really have the luxury of always choosing who we create community with, therefore it’s important that we are equipped with inner fortitude and equanimity. In our practice of honesty and non-lying it’s also important that we are able to identify not just our own monsters when they’re speaking, but to remember and have compassion for the monsters in others that so often blind us to their goodness.


JOURNALING PRACTICE

  • Write down 5 things you experience as true every day. Notice what factors are present when you determine something is true or not. What is the difference between a truth that is an objective fact, like “the sun is shining,” and a truth that is a subjective state like “I feel happy.”

  • After doing the meditation practices, write in the voices of your characters. Allow them to speak completely uncensored. Let them say everything they want. When you feel complete thank them for speaking. What you do with that writing is up to you, but my suggestion is that you just let it be and don’t try to reread or do anything with it unless you are strongly compelled to.


QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER

  • What is the difference between not lying and truthfulness?

  • What are different ways I lie?

  • What are different ways I express truth?

  • Do I believe in universal truth? Why? What?

  • What advice do I have for myself to follow when I am in a situation where someone else’s truth is different than mine? What about when that truth is hurtful? What if that truth is violent?

  • How do nonlying and truthfulness relate to nonviolence?


RELATIONSHIP PRACTICE

  • Choose someone you trust and ask to talk to them about something you haven't been able to talk about before, and that you now need to bring into the light or bring out of hiding. (This prompt is given from LTLM member Renée Poisson. Last fall she came to visit me and we took a weekend road trip to Eastern Oregon.


CREATIVE PRACTICE - Assignments #4 and #5

In the spirit of honesty and transparency both of these prompts are invitations to show yourself. Thanks to LTLM members Bonnie and Lucy May for initiating them with the group.

Thoughts on Saucha (cleanliness)

This is the first draft for a chapter on Saucha (cleanliness.) If you'd like to suggest edits or comments please visit the working document here.

I love how the yamas and niyamas seem so straightforward but then they get you precisely because of their straightforwardness. They throw you back on your own assumptions. I read them and think about them, and then I find myself doing this thing where I’m like, what does that mean? What’s the deeper meaning? I like to get really meta and chew on the nuances of an idea until the original idea is pulp in my brain… Saucha, the first of the niyamas (personal observances) translates as cleanliness. But there are different ideas and cultural norms about what constitutes as cleanly, and that’s where nuance is important!

Do we all have a basic understanding of what clean means, whether or not we describe ourselves or our habits that way? And if we do have a basic understanding for ourselves, what do we mean when we use that word with someone else? I know that I have had some very different ideas about what’s clean than a number of housemates or partners, and it has gotten us into trouble to not have a shared understanding.

So I’ve been thinking about what it means to be clean. And to take the obvious first step, I ask the dictionary.

Webster gives a long answer for such a short word:

  1. a :  free from dirt or pollution <changed to clean clothes> <clean solar energy>b :  free from contamination or disease <a clean wound>c :  free or relatively free from radioactivity <a clean atomic explosion>

  2. 2a :  unadulterated, pure <the clean thrill of one's first flight>b of a precious stone :  having no interior flaws visible :  free from growth that hinders tillage <clean farmland>

  3. 3a :  free from moral corruption or sinister connections of any kind <a candidate with a clean record>; also :  free from violations <a clean driving record>b :  free from offensive treatment of sexual subjects and from the use of obscenity <a clean joke>c :  observing the rules :  fair <a clean fight>

  4. 4:  ceremonially or spiritually pure <and all who are clean may eat flesh — Leviticus 7:19 (Revised Standard Version)>

  5. 5a :  thorough, complete <a clean break with the past>b :  deftly executed :  skillful <clean ballet technique>c :  hit beyond the reach of an opponent <a clean single to center>

  6. 6a :  relatively free from error or blemish :  clear; specifically :  legible <clean copy>b :  unencumbered <clean bill of sale>

  7. 7a :  characterized by clarity and precision :  trim <a clean prose style> <architecture with clean almost austere lines>b :  even, smooth <a clean edge> <a sharp blow causing a clean break>c :  free from impedances to smooth flow (as of water or air) <a clean airplane> <a ship with a clean bottom>

  8. 8a :  empty <the ship returned with a clean hold>b :  free from drug addiction <has been clean for six months>c slang :  having no contraband (as weapons or drugs) in one's possession

  9. 9:  habitually neat

So much room for nuance right? How much of your own subjectivity can you pack into those definitions? And do you, like me, read them and immediately get thrown back on your own habits, behaviors, customs and wonder whether or not they meet Webster’s criteria?

The thing about redefining ubiquitous words and terms is that even though we may all have a pretty clear idea of what those words and terms mean, they lose their power to convey meaning because we don’t question them anymore. When we think we know what something is, we stop being curious about it, stop looking for it, and start to confuse our assumptions about something with it’s essence.

Here’s a personal story for you.

Almost 5 years ago I fell in love. It was wonderful, different than anything I’d ever felt before, (or have felt since) and completely changed my life. At first it felt like we were so compatible and that we totally understood what the other person wanted, needed, and meant. In fact, I remember having multiple conversations about how well we got along because we had mutual understanding, specifically around certain standards like cleanliness. Fast-forward a year and we move in together. Suddenly I realize that we do not mean the same thing at all with cleanliness. We have very different habits and very different timing. For me it felt important to keep counters clean and dishes washed immediately. She wasn’t as concerned and could let things go for a day or three. I wanted a place for everything and everything in its place. She could tolerate a bit more chaos.

I started to become obsessed with how different we were and began to point it out compulsively. I compared our styles of cleaning and organization and found plenty of examples of how I was better at it: I organized and tidied, I folded her laundry, I cooked and did the dishes, I wiped her crumbs off the counter, I picked up what she dropped.

And so what?

So what if I was better at organizing or cleaning up while I cook? So what if I didn’t amass piles of random stuff that I forgot about and left lying around the house? While I was busy judging her I was blind to the ways I was accumulating resentment. She let piles of stuff grow on the dining room table, but I let piles of irritation grow in the space between us. I started to see other ways that I was better, or worked harder, or took more of the burden. I let those feelings grow too. When she cleaned I didn’t notice. When she pointed out how I was also messy or how she took care of me I blew it off. The piles of resentment I was letting grow got bigger and bigger until she couldn’t do anything right at all. I had let the issue of cleanliness become a big ugly stain on my heart.

I’d like to say we figured it out and moved through, but actually we broke up. We spent the better part of a year in some really uncomfortable spaces, not knowing how close we could be and both feeling betrayed and disappointed. It’s both true and not true to say that the cause of our break up was cleanliness. It’s not true because cleanliness is a word that when said implies general, vague things, and we certainly didn’t break up because she didn’t wipe the counters. But it’s true because while the reason we broke up wasn’t actually about tidiness or organization of our possessions, it was about how much shit we let pile up in our attitudes towards each other.

When we broke up I was devastated. Taken off guard by the strength of my own feelings, I realized that I had been avoiding intimacy by collecting reasons to not be intimate. I had to look at the ways that I was compulsive and controlling (a place for everything, everything in its place!) because I was so terrified of not having control, of being hurt. I realized how judging and nitpicking at her was a tactic to avoid the discomfort of being vulnerable. If I could arrange things and keep them just so it gave me a sense of order. But loving her and trying to trust her threw my sense of order completely out of balance. When she behaved in ways that were counter to what I wanted I took it as a sign that she would, or already was, hurting me. My need to organize my surroundings was based in a state of being that inherently mistrusted the world and other people.

Without her there to blame I realized that I also left crumbs on the counter. I realized that while I didn’t miss her piles of random stuff, I did really miss her, and the piles didn’t matter so much. Most importantly I realized that my fear and mistrust were actually the things that were the problem, the things that had been making a mess. I felt so angry at myself for letting petty details overshadow my love for her, I was determined that I didn’t want that to happen again. So I started to clean…

First I started to clean by letting my apartment get messy and chaotic. I was deeply depressed and for the first time ever in my adult life didn’t care whether the dishes were done. Then I started to clean by crying. I lay in bed every night for months and let myself cry the kind of crying that is huge, messy and loud. I cleaned by being that friend who can’t stop ruminating. I cleaned by re-reading journals from the past years and seeing how I had convinced myself of my own autonomous superiority. I cleaned by apologizing to past housemates who had been victim to my neurotic cleaning and judgment. I cleaned by remembering how it was to be an only child that got caught in a horrible, decade-long custody battle in which I had no control. I cleaned by grieving my mother’s sudden death and finally, 15 years later, feeling the panic of it. I cleaned by getting way too stoned every day for an entire summer. I cleaned by screaming, shaking, and sobbing. I cleaned by acknowledging how terrified I was… And then I cleaned by forgiving myself for all of it.

Something happened in that forgiveness. For lack of a better word I’ll just say I relaxed. I started to care less if dishes piled up for a night or two. It didn’t distract and irritate me if a pile of stuff sat on the floor longer than necessary. I started to realize that the ways I had been controlling my environment (and the people in it) were tactics I had developed because early in life, and for much of my life, I had felt that the world was out of control… And the truth is that the world is out out of any of our individual control. But it’s also true that none of our neurosis will make it any more controllable, or any more pleasant.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are 196 sutras (aphorisms, but the word translates as suture – implying a stitching, or sewing together of knowledge) that in their entirety describe the path of yoga for an aspirant and give lessons on what to expect along the way. They begin like this:                                    

I.1 Atha yogānuśāsanam                    

atha = now

yoga = process of yoking; union ânuåâsanam = teaching, exposition                   

Now, the teachings of yoga.

I.2 Yogaś citta-vṛtti-nirodhaḥ                    

yogaś= process of yoking; union

citta = consciousness

vṛtti = patterning, turnings, movements nirodhaḥ = stilling, cessation, restriction

Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness.

It’s easy to sail past the first word, but it’s an important one to note. Now, are the teachings of yoga. Not when you go to class, not when you finally have a daily meditation practice, not when you visit India. Right now. Wherever you are. Doing whatever you are doing. Now is the moment for learning. This sutra tells us that whatever is arising is the teacher, and the time for yoking (yoga) our hearts, minds, and bodies together in a direct experience is right now. Sounds lovely yes? But what if the present moment is tense? What if you are gripped by fear and anxiety?

We are always fluctuating, riding the waves of our emotions and thoughts. Fear and anxiety, as much as excitement or pleasure, are states of being created by our innate and immediate preferences and associations to whatever is happening, internally or externally. My friend Michael Stone often defines yoga as intimacy. He says that when we are intimate with what is arising, meaning that we move directly into the sensation of the experience without getting caught in our stories about it, that’s yoga. To still the patterning of consciousness is to still our immediate reactivity enough that we can make the choice to have different responses, or maybe even none at all. So really, what better yoga teachers are there than our fear and anxiety? We can talk a lot of talk about being present and united when we are in easeful states of peace, but what about when we’re triggered? What about when we are in danger? To recognize the moment of yoga as right now is to recognize that every sensation we experience holds the opportunity for awakening to what our minds do with sensation.

When I was freaking out about whether or not my girlfriend did the dishes I was in a state of reactivity. I was reacting to my past conditioning. I was reaching for a measure of external control in order to pacify anxiety that had nothing to do with her, or the dishes. And this is what we do as humans, we associate and confuse our responses, actions, emotions, values, and meaning. Everything that we perceive in our lives comes through the filters of our bodies (health, gender, race, age, ability,) the values and meanings we have learned from family, culture, our mental state, our emotional state, and so on. The idea of yoga – the concept of having a direct experience – is basically the idea that we can practice not identifying with all of our baggage for long enough that we will notice there are other options.

We got back together. It wasn’t easy. It isn’t easy. But certain things seem clearer now also. I still usually do the dishes faster, not because she won’t do them, but because I get anxious if they’re out on the counter taking up space. Yup. Still anxious. The difference now though is that I (sometimes) am able to discern what the voice of my own anxiety is, and what actually has to do with her. She’s not a messy person. In fact, she’s cleaner than I am in quite a few ways. Acknowledging that, for me, means that I have to take responsibility in the moments when I feel triggered and want to make it her fault. It means that I have to do yoga. I have to recognize that the reactivity which is arising (anxiety, anger, trying to control) is telling me something about what I do habitually. So when I remember, I pause, breathe, and just feel the sensation rather than the story. If I can do this then fairly quickly I feel a sensation that is more existential than immediate. I feel a little girl who’s scared. I feel loss and grief. I feel the instinct to do things and be in action. But none of those things are right now. All that’s happening right now is that there are some dirty dishes, and a person I love.

So, back to cleanliness.

In the most basic ways cleanliness means caring for the materials of our lives. If we’re trying to have organized experiences in our minds and emotions, it’s helpful if our bodies are internally clean and not full of junk and toxins; and if our homes and environments are uncluttered and unpolluted. To make these choices we also have to be aware of our habits. We have to deal with our addictions to junk food, drugs, alcohol, and all of our ‘stuff.’ We have to choose to spend more money on local, organic food if we can rather than big brands. We have to be mindful of the ways we treat our homes and spaces we inhabit, and we have to take the time to care for those spaces. We also have to realize when these choices become their own pathology. If we find ourselves obsessing about whether our food is clean enough or being compulsive or controlling in our spaces then we have let our thoughts become messy. The filters of our perceptions get in the way of just being present with the sensation of eating, or our enjoyment of space.

In a more complex sense, practicing clean living is both a decision and a privilege. Those of us who have access to healthy, whole foods which haven’t been sprayed or filled with toxic chemicals will find that when we consume them regularly our minds are clearer, we have more consistent energy, and generally have more readily available internal resources (immunity being an important resource.) The good fortune to live in places that have infrastructure for garbage removal, water purification, roads maintenance, and green spaces is something that many of us take for granted. If you’ve traveled to any developing countries, or even many lower income communities in the US, you know that many people in the world don’t have access to healthy fresh foods, municipal services, or green spaces.

So cleanliness can also be a choice for activism. When we remember that we have the option of making clean choices perhaps we also remember the impact of our choices. It’s one thing to throw your trash in the garbage, it’s another to remember that trash goes into a landfill or might even be shipped to another country where there are no landfills, just mountains of 1st world trash. Environmental Justice is one way to consider cleanliness. How can those of us who have the option to make choices in our consumption do so in ways that contribute to healthy options for the rest of the planet? The first part of that is again realizing that we have options, and that means getting beyond our ideas of scarcity, our neuroses, our entitlement, and spending the time, effort and money to make consumer choices which don’t trash others for our own benefit.

Finally, a general and overarching idea of cleanliness could be ‘Don’t let shit build up.’ And this means everything. It means get enough exercise if you can so that your blood and lymph aren’t stagnant. It means work on yourself through therapy, mindfulness or in whatever ways help you get beyond buildups of resentment, frustration, grief, and fear. It means don’t let shit build up in your relationships: talk about things, apologize, forgive. It means clean up the damn pile of stuff that’s been sitting in the corner. It means take out the trash. It means help people who aren’t in a position to clean up after themselves, or to deal with the messes that have been put on them. Not letting shit build up means the same thing no matter which way you’re practicing it: stop, feel the habits that are running through you in the moment, notice if you’re running on an energetic charge that isn’t appropriate to the moment (this could be anxiety/neurosis, craving, envy, etc. It might even feel good… those pleasurable habits also cloud our judgment sometimes.) Notice the truth of the moment (do you actually need that thing? Did you just toss that piece of trash in a state of haste because you were rushing?) and then ask yourself what kind of choice you want to make.

Like all the other yamas and niyamas, cleanliness is a simple idea that has profound implications. And like all the other precepts, when we practice cleanliness in our personal lives with dedication and really push ourselves to examine what it means, we practice cleanliness for our loved ones, our communities, and the world. What are some of the ways you think about and practice cleanliness?
 

Resources and reading:

The Yoga Sutra translated by Chip Hartranft

    


Thoughts on Nonviolence - Part 1

This is the first draft of a chapter on Ahimsa (nonviolence)

For the past number of years Sarah Trelease (co-founder of Sola School) and I have been working together to redefine ubiquitous terms and question our assumptions around them. Especially in the yoga world, terms like nonviolence and oneness are used a lot but questioned or explained rarely. Whenever words are used routinely, often hand-in-hand with generalized assumptions and cultural biases, they tend to lead towards unproductive, binary thinking styles. The dualistic moralism that is often the takeaway of these terms only reinforces oppression and suffering through creating the false idea that a person or technique can be good or bad. It is my hope that together we can explore and continue to redefine what these terms mean through a spectrum of experience and personal practice.

Nonviolence is the first of the yamas. The yamas and the niyamas function as an ethical code which has been put forward through the tradition of Ashtanga Yoga (not to be conflated with the style of Ashtanga Yoga which was fostered by Sri K. Pattahbi Jois in the early 1900’s which has a stronger emphasis on asana (postures) practiced in a specific sequence.) Ashtanga translates as eight-limbed and is also sometimes called Raja Yoga, or Royal Yoga. As you probably know, the word yoga is often translated as union. Other translations include to yoke or to bind. An eight-limbed yogic path addresses the disparateness between our minds, bodies, emotions, psychic faculty, spiritual awareness, our connections to other beings, and the natural world in its entirety. Of the eight limbs, the first four are things one can “do”. The logic goes that by practicing the first four limbs, the second four will naturally arise.

The eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga are:

  1. Practice of the yamas - these are the “don’t do’s” or conscious abstaining

    1. Ahimsa - Nonviolence, not killing

    2. Satya - Not lying, telling the truth

    3. Asteya - Not stealing, taking only what is offered freely

    4. Brahmacharya - Celibacy, correct sexual conduct

    5. Aparigraha - Non-attachment, not clinging

  2. Practice of the niyamas - these are the “do’s” personal practices

    1. Saucha - Cleanliness

    2. Santosha - Contentment

    3. Tapas - Disciplined use of energy in your body, speech and mind

    4. Svadhyaya - Study of sacred texts and spiritual guides/mentors. The accompanying self-study. The practice of knowing yourself as a spiritual being

    5. Isvara pranidhana - An awareness or reverence for the divine. Meaningful worship.

  3. Practice of Asana - Postures
    Attending to the temple of your body by intentionally counteracting the force and effect of gravity, aging, mental and emotional stagnancy that manifests as physical symptoms (psychosomatics.) Asana practice should be followed in accordance with the yamas and niyamas… So this means that you have a judicious practice that honors the truth of your body and doesn’t create violence in it or steal from it.

  4. Pranayama - attendance to your breath and conscious breathing. Pranayama can include complex breathing patterns but it doesn’t have to. Again, it should be practiced in accordance with the yamas and niyamas. Simply observing the breath is a good place to start.

  5. Pratyahara - open awareness through the sense organs without distraction. Staying aware of your senses without attachment to what you are perceiving.

  6. Dharana - naturally follows Pratyahara and it is the state of concentration that can arise internally when one is not distracted or focusing on external stimulus

  7. Dhyana - While Dharana is still effort to concentrate without distraction, Dhyana continues from Dharana and is the state of effortless abiding in non-distracted awareness.

  8. Samadhi - The state of Samadhi is described as complete absorption or bliss. When the efforts to concentrate and tune out distractions have subsided and one is effortless in awareness then unity is perceived. In the state of Samadhi there is direct perception of the spiritual flow and interdependent connection between all life forms.

Since nonviolence comes first it takes crucial importance, practice of all eight limbs of a yogic path are dependent upon it. As we continue to explore other concepts of practice, nonviolence is the concept that must ultimately be our foundation.

What does nonviolence mean? We can start at the obvious. Don’t physically abuse or kill others… This may seem simple but in fact we already have ethical problems on our hands. It is literally impossible to be alive on this planet without killing or abusing. Even if we don’t kill or physically abuse others directly we are still implicit in killing and abuse through our choices as consumers. Even if we are vegetarian we still purchase products that have moved through global commerce which means that we are complicit in abusive labor policies, land rights violations, and wars. Even if we buy only local, organic, and handmade, the folks we buy from (and ourselves) use petroleum products to power cars or machines so then we are complicit in wars and human displacement due to oil. Even if we live completely isolated in a rural place, make all of our own furniture by hand, grow and process all of our food, and never drive a car, we still kill insects and microorganisms regularly.

To go beyond the above-mentioned impossibilities it’s also important to take certain things into consideration. There are, in fact, many contexts in which the use of violence might be appropriate. For one example, I think it’s important to acknowledge the deeply embedded oppression of women through systemic gender inequality and societal standards that are associated with females. There are countless stories of rape and other acts of violence against women in which we are unable to defend ourselves – because of both a lack of training in physical defense and aggression, as well as deeply held psychological barriers that prevent women from feeling justified in our rage and encouraged to express it.

In this case we have a circumstance of dependent arising. The violence that a woman might engage in order to protect herself is only arising because of pre-existing conditions of violence against her. The pre-existing conditions function on multiple levels: On a mental level there are ingrained ideas of male supremacy that instill beliefs in both men and women that women’s bodies are male property and objects. On an emotional level women have been trained to believe themselves to be caretakers. We have been socialized to believe that if we exhibit “masculine” qualities like aggression we will no longer be desirable or needed. The impact of violent self-preservation goes directly against many women’s emotional self-understanding – it is inconceivable and/or deeply shameful. On a physical level women have lower levels of testosterone meaning that we have smaller statures, less muscle mass, and significantly less instinct towards aggressive behaviors. However, if a woman was able to transcend her mental and emotional conditioning and was strong enough to inflict violence upon an abusive perpetrator, the question remains about whether or not this violence is justified within an ethical code of nonviolence.

This scenario can be modified to fit any group of people who are less dominant and/or oppressed by another group of people. Systemic racism, homophobia, prejudice against those with disabilities, violence against those experiencing homelessness… In all cases we can see that societal conditions currently exit which inflict violence upon people due to the circumstance of their bodies, location, or class.

Here in the United States we have an extremely divided populace and a newly elected future president who has openly encouraged hateful sentiment and violence against women, people of color, and people with disabilities. In other parts of the world we are also seeing a rise in xenophobia and extremism. With such hostility and growing violence it may seem necessary to many to take precautions now by preparing for violence by training for violent retaliation or defense. On the other hand, we also have a world population that is significantly more informed and connected than ever before. More people are organizing and nonviolent resistance efforts like Black Lives Matter and #NoDAPL are garnering significant attention. Throughout the world people are responding in solidarity and creating their own nonviolent resistance movements and peace efforts.

My first questions for you are these:

  • Is violence ever ethically appropriate or justified?
  • What are the conditions that must be present for violence to be justified?
  • What nonviolent responses or actions can be taken to counter pre-existing systemic violence?

My prompt for you to consider in personal practice is the question, “How do I kill?” This question is meant to provoke an inquiry into the (probably small) ways that each of us kill, shut down, and stop listening. I recommend doing this either as several consecutive journal entries over a number of days, or with a trusted friend in a question and answer format. In our yearly teacher trainings Sarah and I offer this as a question for diads in which one person takes the role of questioner for 5-10 minutes simply asking, “How do you kill?” The person who is answering then offers the many ways that they reflect upon the question. After each answer the person who is questioning simply says, “Thank you” and repeats the initial question. Here is a brief personal example:

  • I kill when I drive my car
  • I kill when I buy petroleum products
  • I kill when I refuse to have a conversation
  • I kill when I don’t pay attention
  • I kill when by ignoring
  • I kill by blaming instead of forgiving
  • I kill when I eat meat
  • I kill when I buy and discard plastic packaging
  • I kill by holding onto a grudge
  • I kill through judgment

There are many ways of killing. I might kill a conversation with a sharp remark, or kill intimacy through my distraction… This is not a time to discuss or explain but rather an exercise to penetrate your own logic through repetition and force a confrontation with yourself.

It’s important to watch what your mind does during and immediately after this exercise. You very well might find that you get attached to self-blame or guilt. This is not the point. But it is interesting. Self-blame and guilt are also ways of killing - these instincts kill our vibrancy, agency, and capacity for perspective. At the same time these emotional responses are quite common, and you might notice that they are part of a self-perpetuating behavior. We feel guilty and ashamed so we are less aware, less present, more critical, and more destructive.

So the second part of this practice is to notice the sensations that arise when we admit to our own impact… and then to let the sensation pass without shutting it down or trying to avoid it. In this way we practice turning towards our own discomfort, turning towards our own shadow, and ultimately turning towards our own power. Violence and destruction in large part are not created by sole individuals. Most of violence in our world is the accumulated force of many individuals’ small acts of violence that go unnoticed and unchanged. Through engaging this practice we make a conscious choice to wake up to our own impact, and potentially to make different choices. So as you practice turning towards the pain you feel when realizing this, keep in mind that you are no different than any of the other 7.6 billion people on earth who are all also complicit in cumulative violence. And in deciding to wake up to your impact, you are making the first step towards nonviolence.

Footnote:
My experience as a yoga teacher and student in the US has been that nonviolence as a concept is easily associated with Gandhi and Martin Luther King but few actually know much about these two men or the resistance that they practiced. Nonviolence often gets mentioned in relationship to asana and students are encouraged to “listen to their bodies” but rarely is the inherent violence within the human psyche a topic of focus. Similarly, both nonviolence and oneness as concepts often seem associated with other concepts of bliss. The result is that many people who have been raised in a culture that values outcome/goal rather than process end up in a state of spiritual bypass. The inner personal work is not done and a façade of blissfulness is presented. This kind of situation can lead to extremely distorted personalities where the shadow (unresolved inner conflict) acts out in strongly unconscious ways through a person who projects consciousness and altruism. We will all find ourselves in these moments and this is the importance of Sangha. Because we can’t often escape our own egos it’s necessary to have friends and mentors who can help reflect to us what they see. My hope is that the Western yoga community will evolve to include more awareness of psychological impact and more emphasis on inner work and engaged communities.

 

Relationship, Community & Creativity - An Introduction to Learning To Love More

The following is a first draft and introduction to Learning To Love More


To be in relationship is to be. As John Muir says, "When we try to pick out anything by itself we find that it is bound fast by a thousand invisible cords that cannot be broken, to everything in the universe." This binding is the way our bodies respond to our thoughts; how our thoughts are shaped by culture; how cultures are built upon beliefs; and how beliefs are founded upon emotional resonance and reaction. There is no untying or unraveling that will make way for a singular identity to exist autonomously. So what does it mean to choose to relate if we are always in relationship? How do our individual identities form, impact and create our collective identities?

I remember being 16 years old and participating in a group where the facilitator had us divide into pairs. I stood with my back against a wall at one end of the room while my partner stood with her back against the opposite wall. We were instructed to maintain eye contact as she began to advance towards me. I was allowed to say, “stop”, “come closer”, “go further away”, and she would obey. This simple exercise began a lifelong curiosity and path of study for me. My 16 year old brain wasn’t ready at that point to articulate the power of the exercise, but my body responded immediately. Something changed inside of me that day. An emotional barrier was broken as I realized that it was possible to ask for both closeness and distance, and to be respected in my request.

This shift in understanding that I experienced from a simple invitation to feel boundary and desire in relationship was not only a shift for me personally, it was a shift for my family. Looking back now I can see the ways I learned to internalize shame, fear and dislocation from both my parents, and their parents before them. None of us knew how to say “no” and trust that it would be heard, so instead we learned to fight, coerce and manipulate. None of us knew how to listen when our bodies said “yes.” We understood, as so many do, that desire equals pain.

Many of us have histories of abuse. Individuals, groups and governments have disregarded our requests for proximity or distance, they have trespassed through the landscapes of our bodies and homes. Aside from our personal biographies, most of us carry the legacy of abuse in our flesh. Current studies are proving that trauma is inherited, and that ancestral emotional memory lives in our genes just as biological imperatives do. In considering relationship and connectivity, and what is implied by those words, we must start with what’s most immediate and close. We must start by relating to ourselves.

There is something in nature that forms patterns. We, as part of nature, also form patterns. The mind is like the wind and the body is like the sand; if you want to know how the wind is blowing, you can look at the sand.” - Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen

When dealing with trauma and the resolution of destructive habits in relationship, our minds can be literally impenetrable in their ability to forget and distort information. I am not saying that we shouldn’t work with our minds and thoughts, I absolutely think it’s necessary to do so. However, through the last two decades of studying somatics and body-centered healing I have had the profound opportunity to witness the capacity for generational healing in myself and others play out simply and effectively through body-based practice. Through these experiences I have come to believe that our bodies offer the most immediate path to resolving distress in our minds. Additionally, bodies are fairly easy places to start. Regardless of ability, if you are here, you have a body. There is no language or technique that is needed to begin other than simple attention.

“Our body moves as our mind moves. The qualities of any movement are a manifestation of how mind is expressing through the body at that moment. Changes in movement qualities indicate that the mind has shifted focus in the body. So we find that movement can be a way to observe the expressions of the mind through the body, and it can also be a way to affect changes in the body-mind relationship.” Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen

These principles so beautifully articulated in the words of Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen have been what I keep coming back to in the past few months as I’ve contemplated the premise of our study together. In working with the question posed by our group’s title, I have had to look at the ways I instinctively shut myself down to others and find reasons to resist love. I notice that even with those who I am close to, who I “trust,” that I often meet them a closed heart and subconscious expectation of disappointment. I can feel it in my body: the way I tense after a personal request, the way my breathing becomes shallow when I look for a response, the clenching in my jaw and belly when I expect conflict, the hardness in my chest that exudes indifference and avoids vulnerability… After working with students and clients for years, I know that this is normal. I have observed countless bodies that don’t remember how to relax, even in safe spaces. I have worked with so many people who have forgotten how to breathe. How can we expect ourselves to relate, let alone to love, when we are so guarded and defensive in our own flesh? In learning to love more we must first directly face the ways in which we are invested in protecting ourselves by loving less.

In addressing our personal pain, acknowledgment and witness are absolutely necessary. We need to be able to confront others who have hurt us, and we often need affirmation from others that our hurt is indeed warranted. Both of these things are crucial for healing. That said, it’s also important to be mindful of the ways that focusing on individual stories can isolate us further. A teacher of mine once said, “consciousness gathers around distress.” I have seen this to be true in people’s bodies. When there is an injury, all attention goes to it – we fuss and fidget around our discomfort, trying to accommodate it, fix it, stop it. This behavior rarely pacifies. Most often it results in prolonging the injury and creating new discomfort as the body organism braces and compensates. This is true also in our minds, and in our psychological and emotional injuries. Who among us doesn’t know the experience of nursing a grudge and experiencing a relational dynamic turn from bad to worse because we can’t put the pain to rest?

When consciousness gathers around distress, distress becomes normal and expected. On a large scale we see this play out in our communities and national identities. When we expect the worst from one another we treat each other as if the worst has already happened. Our expectations of pain can create the very circumstances for pain to occur and accumulate. Additionally, when we base large parts of our identity upon conflict then we become dependent upon the conflict to continue in order to justify the constructs of our identity. If we have claimed our pain as a point from which to view others and the world, then relationships based upon equity and mutual support become impossible. An internalized identity and expectation of pain can never be satisfied, it depends upon prolongation of trauma to exist.

We live in a world where there has been so much violence and oppression between peoples, where sustained systemic prejudice has been the norm for millennia. In this world and in our current social and political landscapes, how do we even consider relaxing our defensiveness, let alone changing our expectations? We see time and again that extending trust and goodwill towards those who have the upper hand results in continued transgression and violation of agreements. If trust continue to be betrayed then what good does it do challenge our own perspective or try to shift our expectations? When and where is it appropriate to fight back with force? Finally, how do we sustain our decisions to heal when and if others do not?

It is my belief that successful negotiations of relationship and difference will occur when all parties are willing to be responsible for attending to and soothing, their own reactivity and pain. I don’t think it’s possible to trust or love anyone else if internally we are constantly preparing to fight. This internal tension is a barrier to any creativity – if we can’t relax enough to consider an alternative to defense then our habits will remain invisible and instinctive. How we relax our instincts to fight, especially if we have experienced repeated trauma, is where (for me) the question of learning to love more begins. I know that any sustained effort for activism in our immediate and larger communities must be supported by consistent and thorough self-care. If we do not attend responsibly to our own suffering and seek holistic and integrated resolution, then we will continue to find external reinforcement for our internalized oppression and violence.

Beyond my immediate, personal/professional experiences with somatic practices I have no answers as to how to go about working with the questions I have posed. I do have an idea though, that a multifaceted approach which includes creativity, dialogue and mindfulness as well direct action will be more successful that any singular technique. I also believe that working with the support of others is necessary. In the suggestions and prompts for this month my intent is to put forward ideas and content that have been both challenging and motivating for me. I would like to welcome and encourage all of us to ask questions, to not have answers, and to allow for awkwardness in addressing these ideas. As we begin our group conversations I am curious about the possibility for vulnerability and openness. I wonder if this is a space where we each can decide to trust each other and to reach out with the expectation of trust in turn?

Footnotes:
 

  • John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911), Sierra Club Books 1988 edition.
  • Helen Thomson, Study of Holocaust survivors finds trauma passed on to children's genes, (The Guardian 2015)
  • Bonnie Bainbridge-Cohen, “An Intro to Body-Mind Centering” Sensing, Feeling and Action (Contact Editions, 3rd edition 2012) the chapter I’ve referenced is available as a free PDF here
  • "People who are exposed early to violence or neglect come to expect it as a way of life. They see the chronic helplessness of their mothers and fathers' alternating outbursts of affection and violence; they learn that they themselves have no control. As adults they hope to undo the past by love, competency, and exemplary behavior. When they fail they are likely to make sense out of this situation by blaming themselves. When they have little experience with nonviolent resolution of differences, partners in relationships alternate between an expectation of perfect behavior leading to perfect harmony and a state of helplessness, in which all verbal communication seems futile. A return to earlier coping mechanisms, such as self-blame, numbing (by means of emotional withdrawal or drugs or alcohol), and physical violence sets the stage for a repetition of the childhood trauma and "return of the repressed." - Bessel A. van der Kolk, “The Compulsion to Repeat the Trauma: Re-enactment, Revictimization, and Masochism” Psychiatric Clinics of North America, Volume 12, Number 2, Pages 389-411, June 1989.